If you know about the London food scene, you know about Missy Flynn. After finding a love for mixology and having worked at many of London’s heavyweights, she co-founded Rita’s nearly three years ago – a late night, American-influenced eatery, serving get-your-hands-dirty comfort food. Though they quickly built up a loyal customer base (their frozen [marga]Rita’s were renowned far beyond their Mare St home), she and her co-founders recently decided to close the restaurant, with plans to open a new venture very soon. She’s a cocktail expert, sure, but Missy also knows how (and how not) to run a restaurant. If you’ve ever played with the idea of opening up an eatery in London, this Londoner has been there and done it, and here, she discusses what’s going on in London’s food scene, and what to expect in the future.
Moving out of London
The restaurant industry is definitely becoming less London-centric. London's restaurant scene has outpriced itself. It's saturated, and the savvy restaurateurs know that other cities are full of people keen for a piece of the action, and in many cases with more disposable income to actually sustain a full market.
Here in the UK we have long had restaurants sitting on the outskirts of major towns that have become institutions, and the fabric of fine dining in the UK. We’re now seeing a willingness to look outside of those major cities for innovation, especially outside of London.
London's restaurant scene has outpriced itself
Xiringuito in Margate is a great example of a project just outside of London that has gone to an emerging area, with a simple, very London-led offering, a very well trained team who've put in the hours that a busy, successful London restaurant requires, but now want to take that experience and travel around the country, engaging local staff as they go and encouraging diners to move across the country, to explore and put in the effort to find amazing, unusual food experiences.
We at Rita's have taken part in the Leeds Indie Food Fest two years in a row and it's a perfect example of a city that is using the enthusiasm and available resources of the younger foodie crowd to create something very special that I think rivals anything we have seen in the South. A simple, honest, genuine love of food brings people together and in some cases I feel that competition, animosity and a desire for food scene credentials has overtaken some of the essence of our industry here in London. What people forget is that for every young, cool restaurant that opens in London, there is a need for a particular style of young, cool staff. We have less people than ever enrolling onto catering courses and putting in the hours in a kitchen in order to learn the trade. We have always relied on a work force made of young, aspiring chefs; if we focus solely on London and building the scene here, we alienate a lot of young people who just don't see how exiting food is in the UK right now.
For every young, cool restaurant that opens in London, there is a need for a particular style of young, cool staff
The state of the industry
The industry is suffering a real lack of staff, a shortage of enough chefs to go around, and many suppliers face some uncertainty over costs and supply chains should we continue with the movement towards Brexit. Two of our key suppliers have recently announced that they are going out of business and I have experienced firsthand the level of staff-sharing-shift-swapping-moonlighting that is going on right now. I don't know if we will continue to see food trends grow in the same way that we have come to understand the term 'trend'.
Perhaps I only see this from an indie point of view, but the trends I think will emerge from this really are most likely a necessity than anything else. We will see smaller kitchens, smaller menus with an emphasis on key ingredients; many places will be working with low-fuss, low ingredient-cost menus that enable some stability. As rents rise in commercial properties, those aspiring to open restaurants have had to become very clever about how to use spaces that may not be 100% perfect. An example would be the amount of smaller places opening up using very local produce, cooking in kitchens that perhaps don't have gas or extraction so making very capable, delicious food using just one or two small plate hobs and a an array of beautiful produce. I think it's exciting as a reaction to the limitations that are in place now.
I think healthier eating overall is a big trend, but not in the self punishing, 'clean eating' spiralising way we've been forced to feel guilty about not doing. I think a deeper understanding of so-called 'super foods' and incorporating these into enjoyable dining experiences and environments will be the way forward. Things are looking pretty bleak from some angles, so lets not ruin our own fun by making eating out boring.
From our experience with Rita's, people are generally more health-conscious when eating out, or make the most of the choice that’s available to them in terms of dining out – whether to go for something that’s perceived to be healthier, or whether to indulge. Which is a nice choice to have. Personally, I like to think that most times I eat out, it’s an indulgence, not based solely on how heavy-handed the chefs are with the butter but on how much I can indulge in an experience – in the food, the service, the ambience, the wine list, the people watching and everything else.
The natural wine movement embodies that same ethos of well-produced products that are technically 'better for you’, served in fun environments. The growth of stand-alone wine bars and within that, those that focus on natural wine is something I saw (and enjoyed a lot of) in Hong Kong. We have some fantastic opportunities to drink better wine here in London, and I think that will continue.
The taste for natural wines comes as part and parcel of conscious consumption – knowing what goes into your body and where it comes from. Just as we are seeing people generally drinking less, we are also seeing them drink better. This began with the rise of craft spirits and distilleries here in the UK, then craft beer, and finally a willingness to explore wines of the world that have been made using low intervention processes.
The actual taste of the wine also follows on from the new found love for funk – that is, all things pickled, fermented and a little bit mental. These tastes are considered for the 'adventurous' or perhaps 'learned' palate and come with some kudos and sophistication. At the other end we have some absolutely awe-inspiring winemakers who have a bigger audience for the fruits of the labour than I think ever before, which can only be a good thing and a testament to their dedication to making wine in this way.
[There's a] new found love for funk – that is, all things pickled, fermented and a little bit mental
What London’s missing
I want someone to build an amazing food hall in East London. Or give me the money to do it! I think the trend for communal street-food style dining has really changed the way we eat but I'd like to see us thinking more about the spaces that we create for people to enjoy. It doesn't need to be a disposable experience.
…and what it isn’t
It’s a bit controversial but I hope the frozen margarita trend dies out ASAP. [Rita’s] kind of pioneered that whole 'white cups, slushy cocktails' thing that everyone jumped on soon after and I have to say, it's hard to get it right and the machines are heavy as hell and a pain to maintain. I'm stoked I don't have one in my life… for now! And burgers. We have absolutely got enough burgers now.
Fall 2016 is 100% going to be all about tacos. Tacos are an inherently fun food to eat and have been reworked in so many ways in the last year. We finally have some great tacos here in the UK and the joy is that they absolutely must be eaten by hand and they will 100% cause a mess. It's likely you'll need a beer in your non-eating hand, and you'll maybe take them by the plateful. This essence of fun comes across in tacos as well as the perceived simplicity (although slow cooking meat, making salsas and tortillas from scratch can actually take forever!), but they are very rewarding. I genuinely think tacos are the best, simple, hand-held and fun food money can buy. (I also see the dessert taco taking off, with lots of variations.)